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Opinions of Saturday, 30 June 2007

Columnist: Adin, Kwame

Legon, Ghana's Premier University, at Cross Road

The news these days from Ghana's premier institution of higher learning, the University of Ghana, Legon, is most disconcerting. The university staggered toward the end of the 2007 academic year amidst incidents of boycott, threats, disruption of examinations, police actions in halls of residence, arrest, and hostility between the university administrators and student leaders/body. Much of the conflict centers on lack of adequate facilities, especially student housing. The ensuing chaos has further polarized the university. There have been threats, intimidation, rumors, arrests, and mutual distrust.

The campus climate has become poisonous and the worst part of it is yet to come. The administration and student body are on a collision course and it might take intervention at the highest level of Ghana's political leadership to avert a clash. The constant issue remains student housing, however, and as in any protracted struggle, the elements of truth, desire, and good will, which promote problem solving, have evaporated from the campus. Instead, both the administration and student leadership have drawn lines in the sand, thereby personalizing and exacerbating the issues.

To understand how Legon got to this point, we must revisit the defining values of the University of Ghana. Founded in 1948, the University of Ghana's mission "is to develop world-class human resources and capabilities to meet national development needs and global challenges through quality teaching, learning, research, and knowledge dissemination." The university is "committed to build deeper awareness of the needs ... of students ...." The University of Ghana takes pride in being one of the most prestigious universities in Africa.

Through most of its history and in several vital areas, the University of Ghana has achieved these lofty goals. The university has indeed graduated men and women who increasingly play leadership roles in national and global matters. Graduates from Legon have attained remarkable marks in the fields of humanities and sciences. The faculty has profiles of outstanding scholars who have undertaken substantial quality publication and cutting-edge research. The accomplishment of the Legon faculty would compare favorably with that of faculty in any leading university in the world. The students have also shown unparalleled resourcefulness. They have maintained high academic standards despite extreme adverse circumstances. I might add that the physical beauty of the campus, amidst gentle hills and valleys, incline and sloping descent, is nature's constant lessons that Legon must aspire for the highest points of life.

As expected with an active campus, the University of Ghana has always been the arena for all kinds of political and social ideas and experimentations. Each generation has its share of encounters with political and university authorities. The heroics of numerous individuals have taken legends of their own. Most famous of these include Dr H. and Prime Minister Busia; General Kutu Acheampong era; and President Jerry Rawlings. Each era has its own story. Consistently, these encounters mirrored the aspirations of impatient young men and women who demanded to be heard in national matters. Then, the issues were just as urgent as now. However, the difference was that the university had the capacity to deal with student demands. Moreover, the students developed an effective platform to express their aspirations.

The University of Ghana has experienced growth spurts over the last decade or so. Today the student population is about 28,000, which shows over 100% increase from 10 years ago. Unfortunately, the growth spasm has not been accompanied by equally ambitious development of facilities. Put quite simply, a family of four might be content with a two-room house. However, they would have to live literally on top of each other if the family size balloons to ten members. This is the problem of Ghana's premier university. It is the problem of the other national universities at Kumasi, Cape Coast, Winneba, and Tamale. It is needless to state that the facilities at the University of Ghana are in serious states of deterioration. Thus, not only have student population grown beyond sustainable levels, the existing facilities are crumpling all over the campus.

It seems to me that there is an avalanche of floodwaters rolling down the hills and there is no viable way to contain the floodwaters. The university proposes to offer housing to first year students. However, this solution is tantamount to rationing life jacket. The university is bereft and stunned. The student population feels a deep sense of betrayal. How would continuing students find accommodation in the overcrowded city of Accra? What will be the quality of campus life without the presence of returning students? It is a fact that students learn just as much from each other as they do from faculty. How would the university achieve its mission on student leadership when the students are dispersed through out Accra, and they lack an effective platform to harness their aspirations?

On the other hand, what should the university administration do? They have made a practical decision to offer campus accommodation to first year students to get them well acquainted with the Legon environment. Hopefully, after the first year, these students would be equipped to look for off-campus accommodation. But this goal is an illusion since the current crop of students has yet to find off campus accommodation. It amounts to sending cows out to pasture during the time of drought. It is futile to continue to patch cracks in the wall when your house is falling apart at the foundation.

The University of Ghana is at a cross road and it needs a bold, radical and creative solution. The university cannot continue to exit vicariously through its past feats. It must deal with its current problems head-on. The university is overwhelmed and it stands in danger of losing its essence. Time is critical. The university leadership must hold their feet to the fire. They must engage in conversations with the campus community including the faculty, student body, and staff. They must seek out the partnership of the student body in developing solutions to the problems. They must talk to the students and faculty in small and/or large groups, and they must talk to individual students/faculty. The university must open up especially to their most vociferous critics. The leadership must listen and listen and when they are tired of listening, they must listen and listen. They must be accessible to all campus members.

The compelling goal of the university is to manage admission. Legon should be realistic about the maximum number of students it can offer quality education on the campus. The university cannot sustain its mission amidst student population crisis. The university must radically reduce student in-take. Ideally, the university must strive towards achieving half of the current total student population. University of Ghana must be ambitious about graduate education. They should strive for a balanced distribution of graduate and undergraduate student population. The university must put much resource into graduate education and extend grants and scholarships to the students. The University of Ghana can no longer be all things for all people. It must prioritize based on how best to achieve its mission of meeting the academic needs of the brightest and smartest students in Ghana.

The university has workers' colleges and institutional affiliations representatively across the country. As a matter of urgency, the university/government and private interest groups should equip and restructure these institutions to raise their level to fledging universities. These institutions can lessen pressure on Legon campus, and, with that, less accommodation demand. Students at district and regional universities would be able to find accommodation in those localities. It would be cost effective, and the fledging universities would stimulate development in these locations. The regional/district universities would readily employ the newly minted MA, MSC or PH.D graduates.

Admission to undergraduate studies at Legon must be reserved for the best students based on both SSS exams, and class rating. A high percentage of admission should be based solely on the SSS exams. However, excellent students from across the country should be considered for admission based on their standing in class (perhaps best five students) and SSS exams scores. That way, Legon would admit students from all corners of the country. It is important for Ghana's premier university to draw from all the intellectual resources of the country. It should also be possible for the best second and third year students from the regional and district universities to transfer to Legon campus based on competition and available spots.

Legon must reduce the student faculty ratio. It seems that the current ratio of one faculty to over thirty students is not acceptable. The current super-size classes cannot promote effective learning. Often students struggle to fight for seats during lectures. Student contact is minimal and the faculty is overworked. It is impossible to teach literacy skills, critical thinking and scientific applications in a super-size class. It is impossible to learn effectively when faculty does not know the names of all the students in their classes. It is impossible for students to develop when they have limited opportunities for feedback about their work. Faculty and student interaction, especially at the formative undergraduate level, is woefully lacking. The university must change its retirement age so that faculty could work as long as they are productive. Legon faculty is dedicated and the students are eager to learn. But, productive is impossible in the current set-up.

The University of Ghana should invest in comprehensive on-line education. It must team up with IT corporations in this venture. They could invest in electronic black board; they could network with other universities within and outside Ghana; they could tap into the library/research resources of other universities; they could quickly implement best practices from other institutions. The University of Ghana must explore the possibility of offering secured bond to finance its projects. Legon must look for internal and external grants to finance its IT education. Faculty could offer on-line classes so that students across the nation and even outside Ghana could take these courses without being physically present. This way the university could derive maximum benefit from the expertise of the faculty.

As a short-term measure, the university should consider setting up modular units for temporary accommodation of students. These units should be equipped for the students. Next, the university should provide a bus system from vantage points of Accra to bring students to campus. Legon must make class schedule cognizant of traffic patterns in Accra. Heavily subscribed or large classes should be scheduled when traffic flow would be light so that students could more easily make it to class. The university should have a registry of off-campus landlords/landladies. The university should inspect these facilities to ensure there are up to standards. The university must approve the list and make it available to students.

Ultimately, the university must review its administrative structure and redefine its core values. The Vice-Chancellor must serve as a CEO with the main goal of raising money for the university. The Vice-Chancellor must engage alumni, private corporations, government bodies, and external organizations with fund raising. The Vice-Chancellor is the chief cheerleader of the university. He should have ceaseless energy in attracting donations to Legon. The University must cultivate relations with corporations within and outside Ghana. The provost should serve as the chief academic officer of the university. Offices of planning, operation, and finance must be elevated to the level of vice presidents. The university must team up with private interest groups for student accommodation, food, etc.

Universities in the USA (and other western countries) generate the most donations from alumni. The University of Ghana must strive for maximum support from alumni. They should reorganize the alumni office and maintain a registry (with email or otherwise) of all alumni. The university should keep alumni and their family abreast of developments at Legon. It should explore the possibility of getting tax-exempt status so that donations by alumni could go further along. Legon has institutionalized international education and the university attains tremendous benefit from it. However, if Legon puts as much emphasis in alumni affairs as they do with international education, contributions from alumni would far outweigh the revenue the university generates from international students. The university should mine the vast resources of alumni.

The university must revamp the hall system. The university must increasingly employ students in halls of residence and in department. They could serve as interns in these facilities. The university should work towards increasing opportunities for attachment programs for students. Some of these programs already exist, however the university must explore ways to make them efficient. The university administration must recognize the faculty and students as equal partners. It must cultivate the interest and support of local and external corporations.

The current condition at the University of Ghana is not working. The board of governors, the academic council, the student council, alumni, and all interest groups must join in repositioning Ghana's premier university to achieve its mission. My write-up is rather long. I hope it generates conversation leading to useful and practical ideas about improving university education in Ghana.



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